Diverse senators from South Australia gathered the other day, in front of one of those stone standing statues of man-cats the Egyptians used to have. Oh no, it was Cory Bernardi, who couldn’t have been less happy to be in a room with Nick Xenophon and Sarah Hanson-Young if a bowl of car keys were being passed around.

But then, Cory had little choice but to be there. The revelations of the Four Corners about the rorting of the Murray-Darling basin plan have been so enraging to South Australians, caught at the wrong end of the river system, that no small-party senator could do anything but appear in a mob demanding immediate action. Doubtless Senator Tory Bernardi would be as concerned about the fate of the state’s water if he were still mid-fist in the Coalition’s Senate scrum order — but it’s just faintly possible he wouldn’t be standing with the red-bench Addams family demanding action.

The uproar over this issue has many, many implications that run beyond the rorting of a particular scheme, important as that is. The South Australian unity ticket reminds us once again of the most extraordinary event that has occurred in recent years: the emergence of the Senate as a genuine states’ house, the exact thing it was designed for, but never really emerged as.

“Designed for” is something of a deliberately naive construction of it, of course. The Australian system was based on the US system, but it came along 120 years after the original, by which time party politics had already solidified. For nearly 30 years, from the ’20s to 1949, it was a dead letter, thanks to a bloc voting system. The monolithic nature of the parties has ruled out explicit state-led politics, substituting behind-the-scenes deals, at best.

[Rundle: Manus Island is a catastrophe five years in the making]

It took another reform of unintended consequences — above-the-line, one-number ticket-voting, of 1984 — to change it again, with a casino system of small parties. But it took 25 years for that to occur after above-the-line was introduced. It’s hilarious. Whatever names for their parties people like Xenophon, Lambie, and others may choose, they are South Australia First, Tasmania First, etc.

It’s hilarious that much of what has been presented as skilled government in Australia has been the ability with which a party or a leader can subvert the purpose of the Senate. Hilarious too, that any historian of the future who knows their salt will conclude that Glenn “the preference whisperer” Druery was a far more significant figure in Australian history than was someone like Tony Abbott, a mere footnote.

Moreover, it is significant that such a state-front politics would emerge in the midst of the Murray-Darling issue — because it was the creation of the Murray-Darling authority that was touted, a decade ago, as a measure of a tilt to the federal level, another stage of the process begun in the Curtin years, and supercharged in the Whitlam and Hawke-Keating era. Indeed, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s scope, with its footprint across four states, was seen as the possible cornerstone of a new federalism — with then-PM John Howard, in his usual rodent fashion, announcing, what do you know it, increased federal authority had always been a conservative cause in Australia.

The “new federalism” had support from all sides of politics, for their varying reasons: the Liberal right saw it as part of globalisation, smoothing the way for capital; Labor saw it as part of a social nationalism; and the Greens saw it as part of a rationalist strategy overcoming parochialism in a larger, more rational process. A multi-state river system was an obvious poster child for integrated governance.

Having an integrated river-management system is, of course, necessary to good governance. But in the “new federalism”, it was also seen as sufficient, and that was a major error. Such scaling obviously becomes a problem when it is used not for the general good, but for sectional interest. Why was it not thought that a river-management system could not be put to this purpose?

The question is the answer. Quite simply, we have passed from a period when even the most venal and sectional forces saw that there were some things that should not be abused — like a river system upon which the whole of central-eastern Australia relied — out of basic common sense.

But as Barnaby Joyce’s taped speech in a country pub made clear, we’ve passed from that era. This smirking moron, sucking up to whatever audience he happens to be in front of, made it clear how it works now: as a pure nihilism, in which the National Party would rather hurry the river system into collapse than concede any basic truth that happened to be advanced by “greenies”. Joyce’s claim, in that tape, that he is protecting the viability of rural Australia is bullshit of course. The only way rural Australia will survive as independent communities is by a major reconstruction of the inherited form of it — like growing rice on the driest continent on Earth, for chrissake. Joyce has no interest other than maintaining his power base and the politics of whining resentment that the National Party has made its own. The fact that they can use a water system for this sort of anti-life politics is a measure of how destructive they have become; they would rather wreck the joint than concede that the era of their politics is over.

[The Greens’ not-so-simple, essential mandate: save the Earth]

This destructiveness — which can be seen also in the rollout of coal-seam gas, and the wrecking of a sound energy policy, another National Party special — all points to one thing: Greens and the left should have a healthy suspicion of scaling up, and the habit of winning local battles by the creation of, or appeal to, overarching bodies that can be thoroughly corrupted, and used for the exact contrary of the purpose intended in their establishment.

Opposition to states’ rights has become so ingrained over time that it hasn’t been fully realised that a federal system returning power to the states (and down further, to local units, in some cases) is a better fit with the sort of post-capitalist society we want to build — scaled, observing the subsidiarity principle, with a smaller gap between power and citizenry, conformed to local and particular conditions — than is one emphasising national override powers. Quite aside from those above virtues, there is the competition principle: since an integrated, proto-post-capitalist* approach clearly makes societies more prosperous in ways that matter, more efficient, and give people better lives, good practice will expose bad.

Look at Victoria and New South Wales, after 20 years of the trajectories they have been on. Victoria is a little Denmark of the Pacific; New South Wales is Guatemala Down Under, a place so dysfunctional that they have built a multibillion-dollar inner-city tram system, which does not integrate — and thus cannot scale up to a genuinely efficient wider-city system. They have laid down in concrete and metal a giant metaphor for their own failure. This is what we are up against: not the Thatcherites of old, confident in their own virtues, but a defeated, discredited, broken political movement, resentful of the changing nature of Western life and bitter that it must accept that its hitherto marginal enemies were not merely correct, but that our politics is — objectively — the only conceivable way to run a complex society successfully. They would rather burn it all down than hand it over to us, and they are doing so, one coal mine and coal-fired station at a time.

The struggle is no longer over the levers of power; it’s to keep their hands off the detonation button, and nothing makes that clearer than their desire to squander the very waters of life.

*no, the proto- and the post- do not cancel each other out

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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